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  IDEAS & IDEALS

Star Wars

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          I don't know exactly from when the term began to be used among my students, but I have become quite familiar with it by now: Star Wars. In my English literature classes I register a star (*) on the roll-book whenever a student answers well, asks intelligent questions, expresses logically what they know about the given topics, or makes good comments and criticisms on the works being dealt with. And they know that the total number of the stars they have earned in the classroom gravely influences their final grade at the end of the semester. Quite naturally they try very hard and compete with one another to catch as many stars as they can in the class; hence the “Star Wars."

          This method of teaching literature does not have a long history with me; it is a new development in the course of my teaching career. For long, like my predecessors, I had been contented with the traditional method: to read the chosen English text, translate it into Korean, explain and appreciate it, exam and award credit. I felt good and satisfied with my work. Students seemed to be satisfied, to enjoy and like my lectures. No problems.

          But there soon arose a grave problem. As time went on, I began to feel weary and tired of myself even in teaching those good stuffs. One day I pondered over the cause of the situation, and Eureka! I spoke too much. Intoxicated by my own enthusiasm for literature, I gave them everything I thought they needed to know. I always stood and went far ahead of them, allowing them no time to speak. By talking almost all the time in the classroom, I made my students passive watchers and listeners, not active speakers and explorers of literary beauty, power and pleasure. I realized belatedly that my job in the classroom was to develop their own skill and ability to analyze and appreciate literature for themselves. Therefore, I dropped my one-man show and adopted Star Wars.

          My method of Star Wars, in which students are supposed to speak first, not the teacher, falls into immediate dilemma when applied to practice in the classroom. Students refuse to open their mouths. When I ask them to say something or anything about the title of the work, for example, a heavy and awkward silence reigns over the entire classroom. Time passes. I feel tempted to go back to my time-honored lecture, but I fight the temptation. I wait with patience. Now I persuade them to say something by asking more concrete and practical questions. Upon this skill or ability to induce students to open their mouths rests the success of my Star Wars.

          There can be various reasons for the students to keep their mouths shut: ignorance, unpreparedness, lack of courage to speak out, or shyness and whatnot. Some students regard it as beneath their dignity and pride of college students to raise their hand to be nominated to speak like elementary students, and they keep mum. But I don't care. I cannot give up my Star Wars before the enemy of silence. To develop the verbal ability of expressing his or her individual knowledge or opinion expressly and unhesitatingly on the spot is the primary objective of my Star Wars.

          But silence is a small part of the problem; on the contrary, sometimes there are too many volunteers who wish to flaunt their knowledge or to experience the thrill of earning a star. I cannot entertain them all, and I should not squander stars indiscreetly. Some thrust the class into roaring laughter by making a wild or an absurd answer or comment; and some raise their hand constantly in the expectation that just mumbling something would bring a star. Some gamble on my sympathy and humor of the day. I put him or her to shame by relentlessly cutting through the nonsense in the middle and pronouncing "foul" like a referee in a basketball game, and instead of a star, and I register an "F." They also know well this "F" will unfavorably influence their grade in the report card.

          Some of my colleagues worry that in a method like Star Wars, where students' active participation constitutes the core of classroom activity, the significant decrease or weakness of the professor's authority and function would be inevitable. I say a loud and big "No!’’ to this concern. In Star Wars, on the contrary, the teacher can wield the authority and enjoy the privilege of an orchestra conductor or a referee in the basketball games, and so he should.

          In my Star Wars there is no traditional mid-term or final exam. Students are well aware that every class in which they get one more star is the real exam, and they are under constant stress and pressure. But I require two or three critical papers on the works we have read in the class. I know some express their opinions better in writing than in speaking. But, however excellent their papers might be, they cannot expect to earn an A plus without certain number of stars.

          I feel ashamed and awkward to have babbled about my method of teaching literature to the world, as if I had discovered a new continent. I think there can be no perfect method of teaching. especially literature. Emphasis on one aspect does inevitably mean negligence on another. To make my students to be able to peep into the creative process of the great writers is the ultimate purpose of my Star Wars. But I know I always reach far below it due to my own ignorance and inability.

          To stretch a point  a little bit too far, teaching literature in the classroom is a futile as well as an impossible job. Nevertheless, I have practiced Star Wars for more than 10 years by now, and it has been firmly established as a method of teaching and learning literature among my students. At the beginning of every semester, I heard, some students who have had no experience with the Star Wars, being worried and stressed, offer to buy lunch or beer for their seniors in return for practical advice and coaching. I often meet with the graduates who greet me with an enigmatic smile and say, "Sir, is Star Wars still being fought?’’ I cannot guess the true meaning of the smile: Is it from a decoration or from a wound they have received in the battle of the Star Wars ?
                                                                                                     (July 20, 2005)

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